THE 21ST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (YEAR B)
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Allen F. Robinson
at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights, NY on Sunday, October 14, 2018.
Then Job answered:
“Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?”
Last week, we were introduced to Job, a faithful, just, blameless and upright man who had found favor with God but whose life, unpredictably, takes a miserable and painful turn for the worst. What makes Job’s situation all the more confusing is that there’s no rationale or plausible explanation given as to why he is subjected to such unjust treatment. What we know is that immediately following a brief, but direct, discourse between God and Satan in the heavens where Satan attempts to convince God that Job’s faithfulness is conditional and that the moment God removes God’s protective hedge from around him, Job would engage in reckless behavior. Somehow Satan’s argument before God is so convincing that God relents and allows Satan to have command over Job’s life.
For reasons known only to God, Satan is given carte blanche to use, test, challenge and even mistreat Job anyway he wishes. The only caveat that God places on Satan’s dealings with Job is that he must spare his life. That whatever he does to Job cannot result in his death. This caveat to “spare his life” must have seemed trivial since many of us have been in situations ourselves or know of people whose lives have been inflicted with such deep anguish that death actually seemed a much easier and more humane way out. So begins Job’s spiraling journey of discernment!
In many ways, Jobs quest for answers is not at all unlike the spiritual journey we take ourselves. When we, as human beings, are confronted with situations that we find puzzling and painful, do we not ask God to shed some light into our darkness. When a loved one is diagnosed with some terminal illness, we want answers and not just the doctor’s diagnosis but we want to hear from God. Richard Rohr puts it this way, “The dying one who shouldn’t be dying is always the acid test: What happens when life doesn’t work? What happens when its not enough to wave our hands at a prayer meeting or kneel at a Mass? How do we believe then?1 That seems to be the central question of the Book of Job.
Even the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis raises doubt about God’s presence in the face of human grief and suffering. Yes, this is the same Lewis whom, in happier times, wrote extensively about encountering the presence of God everywhere he turned. Yet, it isn’t until his beloved wife “H” dies, that he distinctly feels the absence and silence of God.
Reflecting on the death of his wife, Lewis writes:
“…(W)here is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”2
Nevertheless, I believe that like Job, many of us accept the reality of suffering as an indiscriminate natural part of life, beyond reason or comprehension, but we seem to be in a better place spiritually if we have some insight that God is working God’s purpose out in our lives and that we are not being made to suffer just for the sake of suffering.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Job begs God not to remain silent toward his predicament. He presses God to speak with him as God had done so often in the past. In our own moments of grief, some of us may interpret the silent treatment from our friends, loved ones, and even God, as forms of abandonment, alienation and rejection. So, there is absolutely no reason why Job should think differently!
And yet, in the presence of affliction, Job does not abandon his faith in God but firmly believes that at the end of all of this, God will vindicate and restore him. Surely, as Job sits in disgrace on an ash heap, wearing sackcloth and ashes, it is hard to imagine that he’s not harkening back to the words of the Psalmist:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry day by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.3
Then in a moment of uplifting enlightenment, Job remembers that the Psalmist doesn’t end his lament in despair but in hope:
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
In you they trusted, and were not put to shame.4
So, what are we to make of Job’s tears and God’s silence? John Chryssavgis, in Light Through Darkness, helps us to understand the power of tears in the presence of suffering and darkness. Writing out of the Orthodox Church tradition, Chryssavgis contends that, “One of the more tangible and ‘natural’ ways of expressing the darkness within,…is the shedding of tears.”5 He goes on to assert that, “Tears are clearly a prized virtue…symbolical of survival….They are a silent way of learning and loving….Tears are a way of surrendering, of dying, although always in the context and in the hope of new life and resurrection. They are a way of embracing darkness in order to receive light.”6
So, while Job is searching for God’s voice to be a light in his darkness, he laments not knowing how to move forward with healing. He says, “If I go forward or backwards, I can’t account for God’s presence. If I turn to the right or left, God shields himself from me.”
Perhaps, God’s silence is more revealing than we are willing to admit. I believe God is speaking quite clearly to Job through the gift of silence. Whether Job is aware or not, God is inviting him to reject a worldly life defined by materialism, status, power and wealth with the hope of having him embrace a new life of transformation and renewal, one totally defined by the unconditional love of God, grace given freely without demand. It is God’s desire to free Job, and us, from living a superficial lifestyle, one which doesn’t yield life but only fosters death and judges simply by outward appearances and by the material goods we possess.
It really does take a great deal of precious time and negative energy, with no end in sight, to keeping up a superficial lifestyle, one which is always subject to change depending on which day of the week it is and whatever direction the wind blows. However, the life that God is inviting Job to consider is one that could never be defined by materialism or status but simply by the vibrant and active presence of God in his life. In other words, there is true freedom in God when we embrace a lifestyle which seeks to only please God and not the world.
Jesus helps us to better understand the blessings and freedom of living a life grounded in pleasing God. He says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth or rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”7
Parker Palmer in The Promise of Paradox, writes that, “Perhaps our problem in receiving truth as a gift is that every gift makes us dependent on the giver, especially the gift of life. When we accept such a large gift, we feel a debt and obligation, which goes against the grain of our desire for independence and autonomy.”8 Yet, only when we completely surrender and become totally dependent on God to meet all of our needs do we experience true freedom.
Palmer goes on to assert that, “…the fact that we are dependent, whether we know it or not,…generates the humility and gratitude that our dependence implies.”9 Perhaps, the the lesson that God is teaching Job, and us, is that humility and gratitude should be our natural response in thanksgiving for all the wonderful things, known and unknown, that God has done and will continue to do for us in this life. To understand this is truly the beginning of a new life of perfect service and freedom in God.
1 Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, (New York, Crossroad, 1996), 16-17.
2 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1996), 5-6.
3 Psalm 22:1-2 NRSV.
4 Psalm 22:3-5 NRSV.
5 John Chryssavgis, Light Through Darkness, (New York, Orbis, 2004), 64.
6 Chryssavgis, Light, 65.
7 Matthew 6:19-21, NRSV.
8 Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox,(San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 130.
9 Palmer, The Promise, 130.